Question: What is the difference between full-time and part-time MSW programs? Should I choose a full-time or a part-time MSW program?
Updated: September 16, 2021
Answer: The primary difference between full-time and part-time Master of Social Work (MSW) programs is the number of credits students take per term, and therefore how long it takes them to finish their degree. Degree requirements, in terms of both the number of credit hours and field education hours required to graduate, are the same for part-time and full-time MSW programs. Part-time MSW programs usually take between 18-36 months, depending on whether students are traditional or advanced standing, while full-time MSW programs may take between 12 and 24 months, again depending on whether students enroll in a traditional or an advanced standing track.
One of the key considerations for students interested in earning their MSW is whether to enroll as a full-time or a part-time student. Both full-time and part-time MSW tracks have their advantages and disadvantages, and choosing between the two options requires students to understand how they wish to balance their work and personal obligations, learning preferences, career goals, and the timeline for these goals. Part-time MSW programs are designed for professionals who want to work full-time or part-time while earning their degree. Full-time MSW programs are for students who can commit to a full-time course load, which typically means they are able to dedicate a considerable number of hours per week to their studies; for this reason, it is often difficult to work full-time while enrolled simultaneously in a full-time MSW program.
The advantage of part-time programs is the ability to gain professional experience and earn income while completing one’s degree, and to have increased scheduling flexibility. The disadvantage is that earning one’s MSW takes substantially longer with a part-time course of study relative to a full-time course of study. A full-time MSW program requires students to take more credits per term, and therefore enables them to finish their degree quicker; however, the intensive time commitment of full-time study means that students will have much less flexibility to address other professional and personal obligations while enrolled in their degree program.
Prospective students of MSW programs who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a CSWE-accredited institution may qualify for an advanced standing MSW track, which enables them to waive most or all of the first year of their MSW program’s curriculum, including foundational field education hours. Eligibility for an advanced standing MSW track typically depends on when the applicant received their BSW degree, their undergraduate GPA (either overall or in their social work-related coursework), and how well they performed in their undergraduate field education placements.
Most full-time MSW programs require students to attend weekday classes during normal school hours (the actual times and days vary by program), although there may be full-time programs that have evening and weekend classes. Many part-time programs have courses in the evening and/or on weekend days. There are also programs that specifically have courses on the weekend or combine weekend and online instruction (e.g., hybrid MSW programs). There are also full-time and part-time online MSW programs, as discussed below.
Finally, some MSW programs offer courses year-round, which enables students to take courses over the summer and therefore complete their degree sooner than students whose programs only offer courses during the fall and spring semesters (or fall, winter and spring quarters for schools that use the quarter system). Taking courses during summer terms can also allow part-time students to earn their degree over a shorter period of time. Many advanced standing programs actually start in the summer with bridge courses designed to prepare students to graduate studies.
Below are details on full-time and part-time courses of study for both traditional and advanced standing MSW programs.
Full-Time vs. Part-Time Traditional Standing MSW Programs
Traditional standing MSW programs are comprised of 60-70 course credits, and generally require between 900 and 1200 hours of field education; the number of required credits and field education hours does not vary between full-time and part-time courses of study for a given MSW program–what does vary is the time to completion for full-time versus part-time students, and the number of course credits taken per term. Full-time MSW students take a full course load, which depending on the program will range from 9 to 15 course credits per term, and generally complete their degree within two years. Part-time students take between 3 and 9 course credits per term*, which can extend their course of study to 3 years or more.
Full-time traditional standing MSW students typically complete a field practicum each term in which they are enrolled; in their first year students typically complete 450-600 hours of foundational field practicum, and in their second year they complete the same number of hours in a more advanced and specialized area of social work. This usually means that full-time traditional standing students are working between 16 and 24 hours per week at their field practicum site, for each term in which they are enrolled.
For part-time traditional standing students, the number of hours of field education they are expected to complete per week depends on their MSW program. For example, part-time students might be expected to complete 10-14 field practicum hours per week for each term in which they are enrolled, with field placements spanning multiple terms. However, other programs may be structured in a way that requires part-time students to complete 16-24 hours of field education per week, but only during select terms of their enrollment (for example, in years two and three, with no field education during the first year of enrollment). In other words, part-time students might take fewer field hours per term relative to full-time students during every term in which they are enrolled, or complete the same number of field hours per week as full-time students but only during select terms of their enrollment.
Below is a table outlining the key distinctions between Full-Time vs. Part-Time MSW programs for traditional standing students:
|Months||Typically 16 to 24 months (4 semesters)||Typically 24 to 36 months (but some programs may have a 48 month course of study)|
|Credits Per Term||9 to 15 credits||3 to 9 credits|
|Field Education||900 to 1200 hours||900 to 1200 hours|
|Year-Round Classes||Depends on program||Depends on program|
Full-Time vs. Part-Time Advanced Standing MSW Programs
Advanced standing MSW programs offer a time-saving advantage for students who already hold a BSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program, and who also fulfill certain criteria such as a minimum undergraduate GPA and the year they received their BSW (schools typically require students to have earned their BSW within the last 5-10 years in order to qualify for admission to their advanced standing MSW track). Due to students’ prior intensive training in their BSW program, advanced standing tracks allow these students to waive all or most of an MSW program’s first year’s curriculum and field practicum hours. As a result, advanced standing MSW programs are comprised of 30-35 course credits, and require between 500 and 650 hours of field education.
Full-time advanced standing MSW students, like their traditional standing peers, take 9-15 course credits per term, and typically fulfill 16-24 hours of field practicum per week for each term in which they are enrolled. This course load generally allows full-time advanced standing students to complete their degree in about 12 months (e.g., three semesters including a summer session, or four quarters also including a summer session). In addition, there are some programs that allow students to graduate in as few as eight to nine months (two semesters, or three quarters).
Part-time advanced standing students will generally take between 3 and 9 course credits per term*, and fulfill their field practicum hours depending on the structure of their program’s curriculum. Some part-time programs have students complete 10-14 hours per week every term they are enrolled in the program, while others have students complete 16-24 hours per week during select terms (i.e., students may not complete field education every term they are enrolled in the program). By spreading out their course load over more terms, part-time advanced standing students can expect to complete their MSW in about 16-24 months.
Below is a table outlining the key distinctions between Full-Time vs. Part-Time MSW programs for advanced standing students:
|Months||Typically 12 months (2 semesters)||Typically 16-24 months (4 semesters)|
|Credits Per Term||9 to 15 credits||3 to 9 credits|
|Field Education||450 to 650 hours||450 to 650 hours|
|Year-Round Classes||Depends on the program, but it is common for advanced standing programs to start in the summer with bridge courses||Depends on the program, but it is common for advanced standing programs to start in the summer with bridge courses|
Online MSW Programs
For both full-time and part-time students who wish to maximize their scheduling flexibility while earning their degree, in order to have more time to tend to personal and professional obligations, online MSW programs are a viable option. With the advent of innovative and interactive online learning technologies, many schools of social work are now able to offer their MSW programs entirely online, with no or limited campus visits. Online education has the advantage of saving students substantial time on a day-to-day basis, as it removes the need to commute to campus for lectures and discussion sessions.
Moreover, online programs provide students with greater access to master’s in social work programs, especially for students who do not live near a college or university that offers a CSWE accredited MSW program. In addition, online programs enable students to apply to and enroll in a program with the specialization they desire, even if that program is offered by an out-of-state school.
Online MSW students are required to complete the same courses and field education requirements as on-campus and hybrid students. For field education, online students complete their practicum hours at local health services agencies and organizations approved by their MSW program.
For more information on online programs, including field education requirements, instruction methods (e.g., synchronous vs asynchronous instruction), and admission requirements, be sure to read our CSWE Accredited Online MSW Programs page.
*Note: Students interested in pursuing their MSW part-time who wish to apply for financial aid for their graduate studies should consult the financial aid offices at their programs of interest to inquire about the minimum credits required per term to be eligible for financial aid. Financial aid is not guaranteed and can be based on several factors, including the number of credits in which a student is enrolled each term. Some programs may use alternative academic calendars where students take one 3-credit course per seven-week session instead of two 3-credit courses over a 15-week semester. This allows students to focus on one course at a time while still completing two 3-credit courses per traditional 15-week semester (for a total of six credits per semester to be eligible for financial aid).